March 09, 2020

Ireland: the ideal destination for Australian Seniors

Len and Phensri Rutledge find Ireland is a stunning green, has humorous and helpful people, numerous attractions and convivial pubs.

It is called Ireland and Australian seniors can enjoy it at special senior's prices. Ireland is a country that is made for Australian travellers. It is informal, friendly, small, and has all the comforts of home. Fortunately, it also has some travel bargains which should not be ignored.

While we can't be as lucky as senior residents of Ireland and Northern Ireland who receive free travel on all government-run and some private trains and buses (you must have been resident for a minimum of 3 months to be eligible), visitors can still score some discounts.

Seniors, known throughout Ireland as OAPs (old-age pensioners), enjoy a variety of discounts and privileges. Australian seniors can avail themselves of many of these discounts, particularly on admission to attractions and theatres. Always ask about an OAP discount if special rates are not posted.

My wife and I have just returned from Ireland. We spent quite a bit of our time in Northern Ireland and were really impressed with Belfast, the north coast, Londonderry and the Sperrins region. Since the 'troubles' ended, a new enthusiasm has gripped Northern Ireland and this has translated into new hotels, restaurants, attractions and more. It is an exciting place to visit.

There are many ways to explore Ireland. The traditional bus tour is still popular and many seniors will opt for this. You can also travel around by train. A Eurail Ireland Pass allows five days of travel within a month and there are special fares for seniors (over 60). Bus Eireann services the Republic while Ulster Bus serves Northern Ireland. Both have comprehensive services.

Travel agents assume that all seniors want a coach tour but my preference is car rental when conditions are right. Ireland meets those conditions. Most of the major car hire companies have desks at airports, ferry terminals and cities across Ireland. All drivers need is a valid Australian licence. In the past, some companies were reluctant to rent to drivers over 70 but this restriction appears to have gone. The majority of cars are manual shift but some automatics are available. It pays to book ahead. Traffic drives on the left and roads are generally good.

Although Ireland is small, it takes quite a time to explore. The major cities of Dublin and Belfast are worth days of your time, while most areas of the island have natural and man-made attractions worth stopping to see. There is jaw-dropping scenery, extraordinary castles, postcard landscapes, distinguished buildings, wind-lashed wilderness and the cutest villages imaginable.

All of this would mean little without friendly people and the Irish somehow manage to give a warm welcome to visitors. Australians hold a special place in the hearts of many Irish people and this is shown by the ease with which you can make friends with a local. It may be while you are standing looking at a map on a street corner. It could be while you are sitting alone in a pub. Age doesn't seem to come into it and the friend is just as likely to be a 21-year-old tradesman as a 65-year-old retiree.

Most Australians start their Irish visit in Dublin. The city has elegance in its Georgian architecture, heritage in its long and dramatic history and decadence in its pubs and upmarket restaurants and clubs. Many of the capital's great museums are free of charge, so you won't have to worry about finding discounts. If that's not enough, buy a Dublin Pass from to guarantee free entry to 31 top attractions as well as other benefits.

While talking passes, Ireland has literally dozens of world-class golf courses and if you want to experience three top Dublin courses at a discount rate, try a Dublin Golf Pass available from the Dublin Tourism Office

Outside of Dublin, the choice of where to go can be very difficult. There are some scenic superstars such as the Ring of Kerry, Northern Ireland's coastal route and coastal Connemara but you shouldn't miss some of the quieter areas where you can see the more genuine Ireland away from the tourist trail.

Some of my personal favourite locations are the charming harbour town of Kinsale, the rugged sea cliffs of Slieve League, the Dingle Peninsula and the Glens of Antrim. Don't miss ancient Newgrange where you can enter 5000-year-old tombs, Powerscourt where the house and gardens are a delight, Kilkenny with its medieval treasures, the rocky Burren, and the Ulster American Folk Park near Omagh. Possibly best of all is the stunning Titanic Belfast; it is amazing.

Whatever you do, don't miss visiting an Irish pub. The Guinness is great but even if you don't drink alcohol, a soft drink or cup of tea will be a wonderful experience. If it happens to be close to lunchtime, stop and sample the food. You are certain to see soup, potatoes, steak and chicken on the menu and maybe even shepherd's pie or casserole. The atmosphere will be great and the food substantial.

Finally, a tip on purchases. Australians don't have to pay the 17.5% Value Added Tax (VAT) on items you're taking out of the country. There are some restrictions but ask each store for a rebate form, and then hand them all in at the airport. Depending on the companies involved, you'll get a refund in cash, on your credit card or by cheque in the mail.

Words: Len Rutledge Pictures: Phensri Rutledge

Feature supplied by:


Australian passport holders do not need a visa to enter Ireland or Northern Ireland on a holiday. There are no border checks between the two countries.

Best time to visit is May/June and September/October when you avoid the big crowds but still have a chance of reasonable weather.

More information is available from

March 02, 2020

After the bushfires, time to tick off #NewSouthWales South Coast beaches

By Graeme Willingham
Image: Destination NSW

We ticked off a dozen or so beaches at Shellharbour, just north of Kiama on New South Wales south coast, including the foreshore ocean pool where 1972 Olympic gold-medallist Beverley Whitfield got her start as a four-year-old in 1958.

We swam, bodysurfed, ducked the waves, snorkelled, walked in the shallows, sat on their sand for picnic breakfasts, did some laps, or just … watched the waves. Beaches and their constant restlessness, no matter how benign or aggressive, have mesmerised me since, I think, I was a four-year-old, at Port Campbell, on The Great Ocean Road, near The Twelve Apostles. There’s a captivating spirit about the beach, generated by sand, sun, cloud, wind, rain, waves, tides, storms and maybe lightning playing ever-changing roles.

Shellharbour is just off the Princes Highway, but it’s also on the Grand Pacific Drive, the 140km coastal drive that starts at the Royal National Park and includes that cliff-hugging platform highway reaching further south to Wollongong and then wandering on to Shellharbour, Kiama and Shoalhaven.

Shellharbour also can be reached by Fly Corporate services from Melbourne and Brisbane, landing at Illawarra Regional Airport, a few minutes’ drive away from the village. Fly Corporate though promotes Wollongong, 22km away, as the destination. So, ‘Gone to the Gong’ features in their marketing.

Beaches aside, for beach-bums like my wife and I, there’s plenty of other activities and services at Shellharbour … including Aboriginal culture, air, rail and train museums, golf, cycling, walking, fishing, boating, surfing, paddleboarding, hinterland villages and scenery, the massive Illawarra Lake, national parks as well as entertainment, restaurants, cafes and clubs, and accommodation styles.

We were in Shellharbour during the last week of January. By then, the bushfires that ravaged communities and bush along the Princes Highway from Victoria’s East Gippsland to Shoalhaven and closed the highway had, mostly, done their vicious damage. The highway was re-opened just after our visit and then the rains came and doused the fires.

We stayed in a roomy Coastal Cottage on the point at Shellharbour Beachside Holiday Park which is a council-owned park managed for eight years by long-time locals Julie and Mark Core. (This was a perfect site for us: to the north, a 50m walk to the ocean pool and eateries just another 50m beyond the pool; to the south, a 50m walk to the patrolled south beach.)

Julie is also president of the tourist operators’ association. The good news is that in May next year, just along the south beach at Shell Cove, the first stage of a 297-berth marina with hotel, apartments, shopping and a kids beach will be up and running. It will be the deepest marina between Sydney and the Victorian border. Traders can’t wait for the influx of yachties.

(Might have to get back there, because boats and yachts in harbour also draw me in. Perhaps I’m a Salty, over and above beach-bumming.)

The bad news is that Shellharbour businesses were affected by the fires, by the fall in visitors, not by direct fires. And, the visitors who did arrive were subdued by what the fires were doing further down the coast, said Julie. No-one was playing cricket in the park, or at the beach.

The art of ticking off beaches on the NSW South Coast, though, belongs to the 147km-long Shoalhaven region, 20km south of Shellharbour, running from Seven Mile Beach National Park to Durras, close to Bateman’s Bay.

When driving from Sydney to Melbourne along the Princes Highway back in August, we by-passed Wollongong and Shellharbour so we could attempt the Shoalhaven 100 Beach Challenge. We discovered the challenge on the back of our niece’s dunny door, north of Wollongong. The poster’s there, she said, for considered contemplation. It displays photos of all the beaches, with a tiny line box on each image for ticking. She’s ticked 22. We ticked 15. We have unfinished business there. (After Shoalhaven, we visited more beaches between Bateman’s Bay and Mallacoota. We ticked them off, too, in our minds.)

The Challenge was created just three years ago by Shoalhaven Tourism marketing staff to ease the parking congestion at several drawcard beaches, like the quartz-white sandy Hyams on Jervis Bay. It’s been a massive success, now also generating constant interaction online, postings of pictorial proof of beaches visited, or being visited, live.

Beaches are identified by their ‘experience’ – bush-to-beach, secret, families, 24hr pet friendly, walking, picnics, camping, whitest, surfing … and best Instagram shots, of course.

Shoalhaven Tourism confirms the beaches, and the bushfired-affected communities, are open and ready, again.

The Princes Highway is open, as is the airport, so it’s time to join the South Coast rejuvenation.

March 01, 2020

Thailand: Chiang Rai Surprise

Phensri and Len Rutledge find that temples, parks, museums, waterfalls, northern food and even a beach attract visitors to Chaing Rai, Thailand’s northern-most city. 

Many come on a day trip from larger, more well-known Chiang Mai, but that doesn’t allow sufficient time to experience all that this city offers. It really deserves much longer than this.

Day visitors see the extraordinary big three attractions – the White Temple, the Black House, and the Blue Temple – but miss out on the history, the serenity and the character of the city.

The History

Chiang Rai was founded in 1262 by King Mengrai as the first capital of the Lanna Thai Kingdom before he later moved his capital to Chiang Mai. Chiang Rai was subsequently conquered and occupied by the Burmese and it was not until 1786 that Chiang Rai became a Thai territory.

The spiritual heart of Chiang Rai is a life-size monument dedicated to King Mengrai the Great. Backed by three giant golden tungs (Lanna flags), the King’s monument is a good place to understand the early history of the city.

Next visit Wat Phra Kaew which is the original site where the famous Emerald Buddha statue was enshrined. Subsequently, the Buddha was relocated to Lampang, Chiang Mai, Luang Phra Bang, Vientiane and eventually to Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) in Bangkok. Today, a jade replica of the Emerald Buddha dressed in full regal attire is housed inside the crimson, Lanna-style pavilion behind the chedi.

Wat Klang Wieng, built in 1432, houses the original city pillar shrine as well as a spectacular temple complex built in a contemporary Lanna style. The temple has ornate grillwork, roof finials and gilded decorations on its vivid red fa├žades and is a popular photographic spot.

The Culture

If you are visiting the hill-tribe villages around Chiang Rai, it’s a good idea to first drop by the Hill-Tribe’s Museum and get familiarised with their culture. The museum aims to build awareness of responsible tourism by educating visitors about Thailand’s ethnic hill-tribe communities and local etiquettes that they should observe.

Hill Tribe Women (c) flickr user The Pope

The museum showcases the history, customs and traditions of the seven major tribes inhabiting the northern highlands of Thailand, and displays the colourful tribal costumes of the ethnic hill-tribes.

If you want to know more, head over to the Mae Fah Luang Art & Cultural Park. Set in a lovely landscaped lake garden is a cluster of teak structures, constructed in traditional Lanna and hill-tribe styles.

At the Oub Kham Museum, you can see royal regalia and costumes and an assortment of rare antiques, pottery, ancient Buddha images, artefacts and tribal costumes. The collections are housed inside five exhibition rooms and a man-made cave.

Chiang Rai’s modern culture is displayed at the city’s clock tower. This is another offering from Chaloemchai Khositphiphat, the creator of the White Temple. It is best viewed in the early evening when the tower comes to life in an eight-minute light and sound show. Traditional Thai music plays and the monument turns from gold to all the colours of the rainbow.

Other modern cultural elements are seen in the Night Bazaar, Saturday Walking Street and annual Jazz Festival.

The serenity

Chiang Rai City should be all about chilling out and taking it in slowly. The city is built beside the Mae Kok and while there are a few hotels and restaurants along its banks it is largely undeveloped from a tourism point of view. To fully appreciate the beauty of the river, it is best to hire a long-tail boat and go for a ride.

An alternative is to rent a bicycle and take a leisurely ride around the city using the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s cycle map highlighting six routes following the river, or in surrounding districts, that visit most of the city’s popular sightseeing spots on quiet lanes.

Cycling is also popular around Singha Park on the outskirts of town. This agricultural tourist attraction has its own cycle lane around part of the extensive parkland, tea plantation and orchards. The park is a very low-key attraction spread out over a wide area but there are a few specific attractions such as a mini-zoo, a zip line, a restaurant, and a pizzeria.

Beyond the cycle paths, the travel experience could touch on meditation, yoga classes or a serious introduction to Buddhist teachings. There are wellness retreats which offer vegetarian meals, meditation, yoga and Tai Chi.

The Food

Thai food is a major attraction to most visitors and Chiang Rai offers plenty of variety. Khao Soi Gai Nong, a coconut curry noodle soup with chicken leg, is a local favourite. It comes with a side serving of red onions, lime, and pickled cabbage.

Khao Soi Gai Nong (source)

Sai Ua or Northern Thai sausage is a combination of minced pork meat, curry paste, herbs and spices which creates an explosion of flavours. Then try some Joi Yor Sod spring rolls. The pork, fresh vegetables, and rice noodles go just right with some good chili sauce.

For a special treat try the ambiance of a riverside restaurant or enjoy the action and street food at the Night Bazaar.

Getting to Chiang Rai

There are many daily flights from Bangkok on several airlines which take about an hour and 15 minutes. If coming from Chiang Mai, the road trip takes about three and a half hours. The city has a wide variety of accommodation suitable for all tastes and budgets. 

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Words: Len Rutledge    Images: Phensri Rutledge

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